Inhabited by heroin users, drag queens, the homeless and performance artists — welcome to the world of Jonathan Larson's 1996 musical vision of the struggle to live in New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and the general economic collapse of the Reagan and Bush years. Welcome to Riverwalk Theater's production of "Rent."
The iconic show, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has spawned an entire generation of musical theater admirers, bathing them in the harsh but loving embrace of a world on edge — a world of have nots pushing against the haves, and a world where there is no day but today.
Breathing life into this production will be more than 20 actors from mid-Michigan, all from various walks of life. There are college students and medical professionals. There's a part time weekend television news reporter.
In the middle of them sit Brennan Hattaway, 25, and Jake McAskill, 22.
One these men just finished portraying a singing crab in a community theater production of Disney's "The Little Mermaid." The other grew up attending an anti-gay church in Lansing and is a recent graduate of Alma College. Now, both men — who identify as cisgender and straight — are preparing to tackle an LGBT on-stage love affair as the iconic pair of Angel Dumott Schunard and Tom Collins.
"They're both such iconic characters," says Hattaway of his recent role in Owosso's production of "Little Mermaid." "Sebastian the crab is the liaison between the water and the earth and kind of a confident for Ariel. Then you have Angel who is kind of the wisdom of 'Rent,' almost. She's very caring and giving and the relationships that she creates within the context of the show are some of the most beautiful relationships in the show."
For McAskill, who is playing Collins, there is not as much challenge in playing a gay man on stage as one might think.
"It wasn't that hard to say I am in love with you — I mean it's hard to be in love, to feel love," he said. "If I was gay and I just got mugged and a very attractive guy helped me up and said I'll clean you up and help you out, I think I would be immediately attracted to them — and then if we developed a friendship, and kept he taking care of me, I can see why I would fall in love."
McAskill said that despite growing up attending Lansing's conservative anti-gay Mount Hope Church, he's learned that homosexuality is not the sin he heard preached about from the pulpit — over and over again. But even as he proclaims that homosexuality is not a sin, as he was "ingrained" to believe, he struggles to find the words.
"I am not religious, I want to (be), but I struggle with religion," he says.
That lesson may serve him well as he delves into the inner life of Collins.
Director Kelly Stuible-Clark says she is deliberately producing and directing the show as a history piece.
"I realized that the majority of my cast didn't know this immense fear of HIV/AIDS, being between the ages of 20-25, and that there was a chance that the majority of what they knew was from listening to 'Rent,'" she said.
And it was not just an immense fear of HIV. That fear also translated into anti-gay legislation — like Colorado's Amendment 2 which prohibited localities in the state from protecting gays, lesbians and bisexuals from discrimination. Michigan faced a threat of a similar initiative, but that never materialized and ultimately failed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Colorado's Amendment 2 was unconstitutional. That fear and loathing of the LGBT community was also a reality in the world Stuible-Clark is recreating.
To make sure her actors were armed to address the realities of "Rent" as more than just "AIDS the musical," she's enlisted the assistance of the Lansing Area AIDS Network and infectious disease doctor Peter Gulick. Those resources have helped provide the cast and crew with context about what HIV is about today, versus what it was like in the early 1990s, before the advent of protease inhibitors and the triple drug cocktails that have turned HIV infection from a life threatening killer to a manageable chronic disease.
Gulick sat with the cast and crew for two hours early in the process, sharing with them his experiences in the trenches fighting HIV since before it even had a name.
"Dr. Gulick was able to give a first hand account of the history of the disease, what it was like to treat the early patients, and the medical improvements and changes in the past 20-plus years," Stuible-Clark said.
She said she found escape in the musical when she first discovered it.
"I was an awkward teenager — since then I've matured into an awkward adult," she says. "But back then, like many others, musical theater was my escape from the world I didn't quite fit into. I was moved by the romantic idea of leaving the safety of your home to follow your dreams in the most exciting city in the world. I identified with having a group of friends who felt more like family than your relatives did. I agreed with the idea of shirking the idea of 'success' that previous generations imposed upon us, and finding happiness in more than just material things and social status."
McAskill can agree with that assessment. He saw the show for the first time when he was 11-years-old — then still a regular attendee of the conservative church that taught homosexuality was a sin. What did he discover?
"I think that the play is about love," he says in the middle of the interview. "Unconditional love, through the harshest struggles. I saw it when I was 11. I never thought anything about it, about the LGBT stuff in it."
Wrapping it up, he returns to that theme.
"It was the first musical I ever got into," he says triumphantly. "I am a hopeless romantic. I really like love. And that's what this is about for me."
About 'Rent' at Riverwalk
The show runs June 2-5 and 9-12. Curtain is 7 p.m. on Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sundays.
On June 5, the cast will be joined by Dr. Peter Gulick, staff of the Lansing Area AIDS Network and Lansing area residents living with HIV for a talk back about HIV then and now.
On June 8, the Lansing Area AIDS Network has bought out the house as a fundraiser. Curtain is 7 p.m. and will feature a mingle with the cast following the show. A pre-show event is also being planned involving Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo.
Riverwalk Theater is located at 228 Museum Drive, Lansing.
For tickets to the regularly scheduled shows, or to the special fundraiser for the Lansing Area AIDS Network, visit http://www.riverwalktheatre.com/box-office.html